On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at – The Heptonstall Connection? by Adrian Lord

Anybody who has attended a football game, or even a school playground, will have heard some alternative, humorous and often ribald words set to the popular tunes of the day.  The Yorkshire Anthem, On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at (‘On Ilkley Moor Without a Hat’ for you offcumdens) is one such song.

Last year while researching my family history I stumbled upon an intriguing entry in Malcolm Bull’s Calderdale Compendium (an online database of all things historic in Calderdale). It states that the song was written by ‘Heptonstall Glee Club’, but with no reference to the source of the information. Subsequently I have seen the song attributed to a choir on a day out from Halifax, again with no definite source for the information.

Although the words are probably one of the most widely known dialect songs in the world, its origins are shrouded in mystery, but there is almost certainly a link to Heptonstall. The only serious but very comprehensive investigation into the song was written by dialect specialist Arnold Kellet in 1998[1].

The Tune is an Off-Cumden

The tune of Ilkley Moor, the ‘Yorkshire Anthem’ is an old Methodist hymn tune written by Thomas Clark, a shoemaker from the city of Canterbury in Kent[2] who was given some patronage and musical education by a wealthy local Methodist. Thomas Clark wrote several memorable tunes that were widely used throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Thomas was born in 1775 and died in 1859. This period coincided with the Great Methodist Revival which was partially fuelled by joyful catchy tunes with lyrics that are easy to sing, far more appealing to the masses than the rather more formal tunes to which Psalms were sung in the Anglican Church.

Thomas’ uncle played the serpent, a wind instrument, as part of a small orchestra that accompanied the choir in the local Methodist church. Thomas’ father William, a Freeman of Canterbury due to his success as a shoe and boot maker, was the Choir Master. Rehearsals took place in the back room of the shoe shop, so Thomas was exposed to music from an early age. With all the music at home, Thomas learned to write music from an early age but didn’t learn to read and write until he was 28, when he had already established himself as a local composer. His education was assisted friend and fellow music-lover John Francis, the master of Shepherds House School in the village of Cranbrook. The school had a large choir which provided an excellent opportunity to try out new hymn tunes, which were then sung in the local parish church. Thomas started to receive requests for tunes from around the south-east, and often named the tunes after the places where the congregations had requested them. By 1805 Thomas was successful enough to have his first set of 20 Psalm and Hymn tunes published, including the tune ‘Cranbrook’, which is the tune of the Ilkley Moor song. He probably named the tune Cranbrook out of gratitude to the Francis family and local community for their support. Later in life, Clark collated the ‘Union Tune Book’ which was the standard book of psalms and hymns used in Methodist Sunday schools across the country.

The first hymn set to the tune was called ‘Grace ‘tis a charming sound’, written by Dr Philip Dodderidge. This was a ‘hit’ in its day despite the word ‘charming’ being sung in four notes in order to fit the tune. A much more enduring lyric used with the same tune is the Christmas carol ‘While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night’. The Cranbrook tune is still commonly used for this carol in parts of South Yorkshire and the West Country. It is not unusual for the lyrics and tunes of 19th Century hymns to be interchangeable, and the common structure in the musical composition was deliberate.

Music in the Church

Early Methodists, rooted in Puritanism, had a slightly ambiguous relationship with the arts, shunning literature, theatre and opera. Music was often associated with pubs and theatres, and it was not seemly to have these same musicians in places of worship. ‘Glees’ were short songs of mirth and merriment, often about eating and drinking. Glee Clubs were typically comprised of a three or more singers and instrumentalists. The word Glee particularly referred to the unaccompanied part of the song.

Canterbury’s Methodists were progressive in having a band. Many people in the Church of England and in Non- Conformist movements did not agree with any kind of instrumental accompaniments to hymn singing, nor did they care for oratorios. However, John Wesley attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1758 and by the end of the 18th century this had entered the non-conformist repertoire. The Messiah is still performed in Todmorden and Halifax by local orchestras and choirs each year.

However, there were troubled times for the Canterbury band in 1816 “In consequence of the undevout and improper behaviour of some persons in our singing Gallery, during the solemn worship of Almighty God.” In September of that year the following was decreed: 1. No person shall be admitted into the orchestra who lives in habitual, open sin. 2. No person shall be permitted to retain his seat in the orchestra whose behaviour is irreverent during divine service. 3. All persons who after their admission as singers fall into acts of immorality shall be subject to expulsion from the orchestra. 4. No person shall be admitted to, or retain his seat in the orchestra, who refuses subordination to the committee appointed to superintend the orchestra.

The Wesleys were prominent in the Methodist Revival, and both John and Charles wrote many hymns themselves. Both visited Heptonstall although they were reputedly stoned by suspicious locals on their initial trips. John returned to preach in the famous octagonal chapel while it was being built, and then again in 1766 two years after it was completed.

There are other historic local connections to Kent through the woollen trade, where raw fleece was bought for processing in Yorkshire, and a quick look on Ancestry website will see a few southern outposts of the Sutcliffes, Greenwoods etc which are perhaps a legacy of this activity.

Non-Conformist Society

In the 18th century the only legal religious institution was the Church of England. The non-conformists originally had ‘meeting houses’ and, apart from not wanting corners in which the devil could hide, another reason for use of an octagon was so the building could not be mistaken for a church.

The growth of the Non-Conformist movement in the Calder Valley was unsurprising. The remote scattered settlements were not easily served by a Parish Church, and even in Heptonstall, there wasn’t a full-time vicar. Amy Binns’ book, Valley of a Hundred Chapels[3] details the grass-roots origins of many local chapels.

The ‘dual economy’ of small-holding and weaving meant that most families were used to being quite self-sufficient and not entirely dependent on a local land-owner for employment. The local people were possibly therefore more receptive to a DIY style of religion that encourages independent thinking.

Branches of my own family illustrate a trend towards ‘urban’ living, moving from Widdop, Shackleton, Erringden towards Heptonstall, Hebden Bridge and Halifax during the 19th century to take advantage of employment in the local mills. As they moved, they established local churches, for example, the Baptists in Queens Road and Ovenden came from Heptonstall.

The growing merchant class that emerged and thrived during the industrial revolution were acutely aware that hard work might take them from rags to riches but that fortunes could just as easily be lost. They were not perhaps pre-disposed to accepting ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ as evidence of God’s plan for their destiny. The roots of the Chartists and socialism were, perhaps unwittingly, being planted, and some of these newly rich industrialists were maybe more sympathetic to the lot of their employees than the landed gentry. It is evident from the grand Methodist Halls in several cities how well established the non-conformists were in the governance and everyday life of industrial areas. Church committees were an excellent environment in which to nurture political skills.

The Methodists and Baptists thrived in Heptonstall, with several meeting houses throughout the Parish including Edge Lane, Blake Dean, Cross Lanes and Slack. The churches and chapels were built by subscription, inspired by star evangelical preachers such as William Darney and Dan Taylor, and run by members of prominent local families.

The recently discovered transcriptions of the Methodist Sunday School Committee reveal how the annual ‘Treat’ for children was an important event in the church calendar, attended by several hundred children, with months of preparation including a performance by the choir. In 1818 there were over 1000 children in the Heptonstall Sunday School.

The Whitsuntide Anniversary Sing, in which Sunday Schools from around Calderdale would gather, became a popular event in the 19th century as this picture of the Piece Hall shows.

At Whitsuntide the chapels would invite ‘star’ preachers to attract the crowds. Posters for such events were discovered lining the wall of a shop in Market Street.

Ilkley Moor and the Heptonstall Connection

Although it is assumed to have been around since the 1860s or 70s, the first evidence of the song being written down dates from 1916. Arnold Kellet attributes the song to Halifax and the Calder Valley because of the use of certain dialect words that are not seen elsewhere.  There was an active Yorkshire Dialect society in Halifax in the early 20th century and so the local way of speaking is well preserved, and even today there are obvious differences from the Leeds accent to the east and the Dales accent of North Yorkshire.

The move towards an urban and industrialised society was accompanied by more formal recreation, with sports and days out often organised by the churches that were at the heart of communities. Places like Hardcastle Craggs, Shipley Glen and Ilkley Moor became popular destinations for mill workers, made more accessible by rail travel in the latter half of the 19th century.

It is my theory that it was probably on such a trip that the song was made up. I imagine everybody returning home in high spirits, piled into the back of a few horse drawn wagons on Haworth Old Road on a warm June night. But why hasn’t anybody ever claimed responsibility?

Non-Conformists were fighting a battle to be more formally recognised and there were internal schisms within both the Baptist and Methodist movements. Maybe no faction wanted to be undermined by association with a trivial song.

Keeping control of hundreds of uncouth children and their parents can’t have been easy for the Sunday School leaders, so they wouldn’t want to actively encourage irreverent singing.

There was tension in Ilkley which was a genteel Spa town that was also popular and easily accessible to the raucous mill workers of West Yorkshire. Would the prudish late Victorians and early Edwardians want to publicise a risqué song about the town?

The latter part of the 19th Century also saw the rise of the Temperance Movement to counter the evils of drink, in which the non-conformist churches played a major role. It is unlikely that the churches would promote words that had perhaps been made up while members of the choir were under the influence.

The Missing Link?

Lots of circumstantial evidence suggests that the Yorkshire Anthem originated in Heptonstall:

  • Wallace Harvey’s biography of Thomas Clark says that the song was attributed to Heptonstall Glee Club by ‘a Yorkshire Schoolmaster’ in 1928. (I haven’t yet found out who this is or what is the 1928 reference).
  • The long and unbroken record of Methodist worship at Heptonstall
  • The strong tradition of singing within the village community
  • The fact that many of the Halifax chapels (another potential source of the song) also have their origins in Heptonstall families
  • The annual Whitsuntide celebrations and days out provide a potential event to inspire the song
  • The Calder Valley dialect is used in the song

I really hope that somewhere in our research for the Heptonstall Historical Society we can find something concrete that pins the blame firmly on Heptonstall

Adrian Lord


[1] Kellet, Arnold On Ilkla Moor baht ‘at: The story of the song, Smith Settle, 1998

[2] Harvey, Walllace Thomas Clark of Canterbury, 1775-1859, Emprint, Kent, 1983

[3] Binns, Amy, Valley of a Hundred Chapels, Grace Judson Press, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s